This week the state released the long-awaited Michigan Education Finance Study, better known as an “adequacy study.” Twice delayed from its original March 31 deadline due to errors by different parties, the report authorized by December 2014 state legislation has been greeted with an underwhelming reaction.

Colorado-based Augenblick, Palaich, & Associates secured a $399,000 taxpayer-funded contract to produce the report. The company’s 13 studies of different states’ school finance systems all concluded with a call for more money, typically, a large dollar figure clearly stated in the report.

Poring through the Michigan adequacy study’s 224 pages, one thing readers won’t find is the overall recommended price tag. For the biggest backers of spending more on schools, reading the report must have been like waiting until spring break to open a shiny wrapped Christmas present, only to find an elaborate disassembled puzzle and a thick stack of detailed instructions.

Some people have latched on to the recommended $8,667 per pupil base expenditure, without a clear understanding of what the number represents. It’s the average amount spent by 54 school districts deemed to be “notably successful,” but only after factoring out expenses and applying a series of “efficiency screens” loosely explained in the report.

Federal government data actually shows the 54 districts spent a combined $11,285 per student on operations in 2014-15. By comparison and after excluding the report’s high-spending outliers, the per pupil expenditure for districts not deemed successful was only $60 less: $11,225. Add in intermediate school districts, and the total statewide figure surpasses $12,000 per pupil.

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When the highly touted adequacy report leaves attuned observers wondering what the actual figures for K-12 spending are, it’s no wonder that the average Michigander struggles to give a well-informed answer:

(The $13,000 per student figure mentioned in the video includes all education-related spending, both operational costs and capital projects.)

The $8,667 figure doesn’t capture the total of the adequacy study’s recommended increases. APA also proposes an additional 30 percent for each low-income student and 40 percent for each student who is not a native English speaker.

Such a plan might make funding more equitable, but the recommended spending amounts offer no real hope of improved outcomes for students. Following the state’s legal guidelines for the study, APA noted that base expenditures for 19 of the 54 top-performing districts were on average 10 percent less than the recommended amount. And many unsuccessful districts already spend more.

Using a regression analysis, APA estimates that each extra $1,000 spent per student increases high school math and reading proficiency rates by 1 percent. This finding differs somewhat from the Mackinac Center’s more rigorous, multiyear, building-level analysis that found no relationship between increased spending and 27 of 28 academic indicators.

Yet even granting that APA’s estimate is true, Michigan school districts would have to more than double their spending just to ensure one-third of 11th-graders meet the math standard on the state’s new test called M-STEP.

Even if our eager gift-opener could follow the dense instructions and successfully assemble the new puzzle, a huge letdown would be all but assured. The state should shelve the adequacy study and undertake the hard work of changing the education system’s incentives to maximize results.

Reforms that engage and empower parents offer one very promising path. Most gold standard research shows that robust school choice programs tend to produce better results — not only for participating students but also for those who remain enrolled in traditional public schools. And good news for lawmakers who recently had the adequacy study cross their desks: These programs almost always save money.


Related Articles:

Mackinac Center Weighs In On State’s Education Adequacy Study

Mackinac Center Weighs in on State’s Education Adequacy Study

The Numbers Behind Upcoming Adequacy Study

History Shows Delayed Adequacy Study Will Call for More Money

Honest Education Discussion Requires Counting All the Dollars